A Homeland Security Department campaign to make schoolchildren better prepared for terrorist attacks is raising concerns about making them more vulnerable to identity theft as well.<>>
The department's preparedness form, which went out as part of the "Ready" campaign in September and October, asks that students in junior and senior high school carry around a form that includes their Social Security number, birth date and home address, as well those of their parents and siblings.
The move first caused an outcry in Rhode Island when a consumer fraud investigator brought it to the attention of Patrick Lynch, the state attorney general. Mr. Lynch responded by firing off a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge requesting that he revise the form immediately.
"While I do agree that it is important for families to have a plan in the event of an emergency, I believe this particular form is capable of more harm than good," he said in the letter dated Oct. 14. He said he was particularly concerned about the part of the form that exhorts: "Take this out of your agenda, fill it out with family and make copies to keep in your schoolbag and in visible locations at home."
Mr. Lynch said that asking children to carry around such information was an invitation to identity thieves because teenagers frequently lose or misplace their backpacks.
Mr. Lynch said in a phone interview yesterday that he has yet to receive any response from Homeland Security.
Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse denied that the government was encouraging identity theft, saying that people worried about such problems could choose to leave the sensitive entries blank. "People can choose to include whatever information on the forms they like," he said.
Several Homeland Security programs have drawn criticism and privacy complaints from civil activists over the past two years. The agency says that such measures need to be taken to protect Americans from terrorist plots.
Homeland Security officials declined to say how many student planners with the forms were sent around the country, but say that they have removed the sentence encouraging students to keep copies of the forms in their backpacks from the latest version. However, space for the family Social Security numbers is still included. Mr. Roehrkasse said that forms which will be sent to younger children later this year won't include space for Social Security information.
Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Liberty Project, said Homeland Security was "grossly irresponsible" for the form, saying that it should know that identify theft is an epidemic in the country and their actions would only make it easier for thieves. "I hope this was just a misjudgment by the department and not a concealed attempt to collect data," he said.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, the problem of identity theft cost Americans nearly $43 billion last year. Identity theft is also of major concern to federal law-enforcement officials because it could help terrorists disguise their activities.
In addition to complaining to Mr. Ridge, Mr. Lynch wrote to Rhode Island's state director of Homeland Security affairs and to the superintendents of each of the state's school systems asking them to disregard the Homeland form. "We don't want children, we don't want adults, we don't want anybody giving up their Social Security numbers," he said.
By ALONSO SOTO and ROBERT BLOCK Staff Reporters of THE